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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

New Legislation Expands Stalking Laws, Adds Rules For Online Activity And Social Media

Peter Hirschfeld
Toni-Lee Sangastiano, standing with her husband and Gov. Peter Shumlinat a press conference Tuesday, says outmoded language in the state's stalking law impeded her ability to get legal protection against her stalker.

The methods used by stalkers to harass and intimidate their victims have evolved over the years. Vermont’s criminal statutes have not. That’s about to change, and new legislation will strengthen legal protections for victims of stalking.

About 10 years ago, Toni-Lee Sangastiano became the target of a stalker. She says the anxiety caused by his harassment was consuming.

“Looking around every day for particular people or vehicles ... it’s a lot of space and anxiety that should be dedicated to other parts of my life,” Sangastiano says.

Sangastiano decided to avail herself of the legal remedies that she assumed would be readily available from the criminal justice system. Instead, a judge denied the protection order she’d sought.

“I never thought there would be any obstacle, so it was disappointing throughout the years of this,” Sangastiano says. “There were times I lost hope in the system.”

Sangastiano is not in the minority. In 2015 alone, more than 700 people sought civil protection orders against their alleged stalkers in Vermont. Only a quarter of them succeeded in obtaining legal protection.

Advocates blame outmoded language in the stalking law for the majority of those rejections. And legislation signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin on Tuesday delivers the updates advocates say are needed to give the stalking law more teeth.

“Victims rarely receive the orders they requested for reasons related to the lack of clarity of the state and consequently an inability of the investigating law enforcement and presiding judges to clearly interpret it,” says Auburn Watersong, policy director at the Vermont Network Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Watersong says the existing stalking law is vague, and only prohibits overt threats to a person’s safety. That means behavior that’s clearly designed to harass or intimidate, but isn’t itself illegal, has until now fallen short of the threshold needed to obtain a protection order.

"The clarity and the modernization of our stalking laws mean that victims no longer have to endure years of harassment, intimidation and surveillance by any action, method, means or device." — Toni-Lee Sangastiano, stalking victim

The new law makes illegal any course of conduct that would make a reasonable person fear for their safety, even if the individual acts involved aren’t criminal.

“It means that victims of stalking will know that when they seek help, they will hear that they have options,” Watersong says.

The law also addresses the technological means, whether it's social media or other online activity, that many stalkers now use to intimidate their targets.

“The clarity and the modernization of our stalking laws mean that victims no longer have to endure years of harassment, intimidation and surveillance by any action, method, means or device,” Sangastiano says.

Shumlin says he recalls working on the last update to the state’s stalking law as a young legislator. “There was no ability to use technology from a distance to harass and destroy someone’s life,” Shumlin says.

He says the changes are long overdue.

“We have to ask, how do we make Vermont safer, stronger, more tolerant, better? And there’s no question that this bill will protect people who currently aren’t protected,” Shumlin says.

Lawmakers say the new language will protect stalking victims without barring constitutionally protected speech. And they say it’s written in a way that will prevent bad actors from using the law to win petty or frivolous claims against innocent people.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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